The World Cup and the Wonder of Humanity

Like some of you, I watched the United States’ national soccer team on its hair-raising journey into the quarterfinals of the ongoing 2010 World Cup.  By allowing opponents to score within the first ten minutes of every game, the team ensured a tournament journey filled with tension and drama.  Yet by producing comeback after comeback, the team also stirred the hearts and passions of supporters back home who found ourselves in the unusual position of rooting for global underdogs.

The U.S. is now out of the World Cup, losing 2–1 last week to an inspired Ghana side defending their continent as the last home nation remaining in a tournament played on African soil.  But the sights and sounds of war-painted, flag-draped supporters, of national chants and national anthems, of the human reactions of sheer bliss and full-bodied dismay, do not fade quickly.

The psalmist was not naïve when he worshiped God for being the creator of man: “You have made [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.  You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea” (Psalm 8:5-8).  Man is an utterly astonishing being, with a remarkable kingly calling.  The human emotion, the immeasurable passions, the physical skill, the national pride, the deep tradition, the fierce loyalty — all of these pull back the curtain on the wonder that is humanity.  Here are a few rays of the glory of mankind that I saw through the World Cup:

The Power of Solidarity.  Unity is no joke.  In a fallen world it is impossible to maintain, but wherever it appears, it is a force to be reckoned with.  My past memories of the World Cup include watching the television, mesmerized, as one hundred thousand fans performed the wave in perfect unison so that it appeared as though an actual wave of energy was flowing around the stadium.  My new memories of the 2010 World Cup center on the impassioned fans, a word which, in this case, can rightfully be expanded to its full version — fanatic.  It is no small thing to be together, to be passionately together for a common cause and a far-reaching heritage and a deeply shared loyalty.

The Power of Tradition.  When “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played at a high school basketball game in Terre Haute or a Dodger game in Los Angeles or a college graduation in Birmingham, it means something minimal.  But when sung in time of war or competition — times of national testing, whether for freedom or for pride — the national anthem sounds startlingly different.  One of the most powerful two minutes of every World Cup match is the playing of each national anthem as HD cameras slowly pan the faces of every player standing shoulder to shoulder, filled with the kind of fierce loyalty that saturates the human spirit and overflows in emotion.  It’s not like a Laker’s game where people cheer for Celine Dion’s rendition because of the power of her voice and the strength of her performance.  At the World Cup a bare instrumental version played over stadium loudspeakers brings the world’s best athletes, and the world’s most passionate fans, to tears.  Whatever you or I may think about the present state of America, it’s impossible to deny the wonder of humanity in the power of tradition.  Take a moment and slowly quote to yourself the first verse of the “The Star Spangled Banner.”  It’s an incredible piece of writing when you stop and think about it.  But never does “the land of the free” and “the home of the brave” sound as noble as when that land and that home are being tested.

The Power of Technology.  By now some of you have heard of the 21-year-old Purdue University senior who spliced together a patriotic video montage of American supporters throughout the nation celebrating Landon Donovan’s heart-stopping game-winner against Algeria last Wednesday morning.  Immediately the video went viral, and within a day it was playing on Donovan’s own laptop in South Africa, bringing him to tears as he experienced the shocking wave of American support that coarsed through the nation after his goal in injury time.  The power of technology is incalculable, and it demonstrates the wonder of mankind.  It is a powerful tool for human flourishing and Christian ministry if used with humility and wisdom.

The Power of Citizenship.  For all my disappointment and disgust at our American characteristics of perceived invincibility, rampant immorality, customary individualism, blatant hypocrisy, and endless materialism, I still carry an unavoidable sense of belonging to this remarkable country.  I was born and raised in America’s heartland, where the wind comes sweeping across the plain.  Every sporting event I’ve attended has played the stars and bars, and in the years of my youth I joined every other American schoolboy in reading about Paul Revere and Francis Scott Key and Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and even in the ugliest days when the States were anything but United, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.  I learned of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and Eisenhower and Roosevelt.  Every Fourth of July I gathered along the Arkansas River with the rest of my city to watch the fireworks launched from the 21st Street bridge.  I ate hot dogs, caught fireflies, and played WiffleBall, and the next day it was G.I. Joe’s and Matchbox cars and Lincoln Logs and Monopoly.  In a most basic human sense, I’m an American.  And in a very real sense, even if not in an ultimate sense, this is where I belong.  This demonstrates the power of citizenship, the power of belonging, the strength of fromness — that we are from somewhere, and that no matter how far we get from that somewhere, no how far we wander or how high we climb or how different we become, that somewhere matters.  It’s not just in our past.  It’s in us.  This is why it meant something when Paul told the Roman-colonized Philippians the higher and ultimate reality that’s as true for me as it was for them:  “Your citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:21).  The country that holds our citizenship is the country that holds us.

The Power of Passion.  No one can deny that many non-soccer fans are drawn to the World Cup.  What causes the disinterested to become interested?  Several things, perhaps.  But one of the most obvious is the power of passion.  The players and the fans and even the announcers are many things, but they are nothing if not passionate.  It’s striking to see faithful followers from every nation gather at the World Cup, fans who have gone beyond fanhood to the point where the team is rightfully a “we” and not a “they.”  Every four years these fans cast themselves into a self-forgetting frenzy for all the world to see, parading their loyalties on the world’s grandest sporting stage.  They come decked out in their national colors, waving flags throughout every match, chanting the songs of their homelands, dancing in the stands and in the streets after every victory, and taking every loss like the loss of a dear friend.  When the nations of men soak themselves with loyalty and strike the match of sport, even the disinterested will gather to watch the passion burn.  If there are not a thousand analogies here for the Christian life, the Christian marriage, the Christian ministry, the Christian pulpit, and the Christian church, then analogies have failed us altogether.

The Earthiness of Sport.  Sport is the stuff of earth, which is not to say that sport is not the stuff of heaven.  The new heavens and the new earth and the new humanity will include all that is fundamental to human flourishing.  I won’t venture to say whether or not this will include athletic competition and games highlighting human ability, because the Bible says nothing explicit about it.  But I am convinced that the traditional notion of heaven where disembodied spirits float upon clouds while playing harps above unwalked-upon streets of gold is biblically short-sighted.  The redeemed souls of men are gathered together in the presence of God in heaven during this age, but the resurrection of the body is coming, and the new heavens and the new earth will be just that — heavenly, and earthly, and new.  As Douglas Wilson has said, “Heaven is not my home; I’m just passing through.”  God is in the business of remaking earth and restoring humanity so that heaven and earth will one day be joined together again.  This means that we who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ will be gloriously human, and wonderfully earthy.  The Christian life is not a dualistic pursuit in which we seek to shed the baggage of the body or distance ourselves from the stuff of earth.  We are not seeking a future Christian nirvana, but a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13) and humanity runs its full and beautiful course, this time in paradisiacal perfection.

The World Cup is over for the United States, and it will soon be over for everyone.  But the wonder of humanity, even with its marred divine image, will live on, giving honor unknowingly and even begrudgingly to its Creator.

So, do solidarity and tradition and technology and citizenship and passion and sport matter, and can we learn anything from them?  You decide:

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